The Chrurch and Shrine of Mar Eli

Authors: Adad Alan Zaya

Foundation and History

Sarkis Aghajan, the finance minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in 2003, built the Shrine of Mar Eli, also known as the St. Eli Shrine. Before the shrine was built, the location was just a flat garden in which two rocks were said to mark the approximate spot of Eli Abdouka’s martyrdom. According to Father Janan Shamil, the supervisor of the shrine, the garden was considered to be the borders of Ankawa when it was still a small village. However, Eli Abdouka was a Christian from Ankawa, a suburb of Erbil. In the early 1830s, many Christians were obliged to convert their religion during the crusades of Muhammad al Rawanduzy, also known as Mira-kur. Eli was among those who had converted from Christianity to Islam to avoid paying Al Jizya or tribute,[1] but after feeling remorse for converting his religion of origin, he returned to Christianity. Apostasy in Islam is prohibited and the punishment is harsh.[2] Eli was killed in the place where the shrine now stands.

Photos of the Shrine of Mar Eli shortly after its construction. Source: Ishtar TV[3]

Thereafter, Christians from Ankawa considered him a martyr, and as a sign of popular devotion the place of his martyrdom was designated a memorial. Father Janan confirmed that no records explaining the shrine exist, except for the rocks that local people claim is close to the Eli’s place of death. According to a tradition passed down, people used to light candles close to those rocks as a sign of respect to Eli’s soul.

Originally, the shrine was used as an integral church for the Chaldean community in Ankawa, holding masses, baptisms, marriages, and funerals, among other functions. Over time, the rising inflows of Christians from different places and the ongoing expansion of Ankawa increased the need for more churches to serve the community. In response, after the 2010 ordination of Bashar M. Warda, the current Catholic Chaldean Archbishop of Erbil, the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Help was built and consecrated in 2014. The shrine, however, was limited to holding masses and prayers after it was built. Different Christian denominations, including the Assyrians and the Orthodox, used the shrine. Nowadays, the parish of St. Joseph is responsible for the site, which hosts masses for foreigners every Friday besides the regular masses for everyone else (to be discussed in the next sections).

After 2014, ISIS – the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – took over three quarters of Iraqi territory. Many refugees fled their governorates and came to the KRG, including Christian refugees from Mosul and Nineveh Plans. The poor refugee families came with nothing, leaving their possessions to the occupying forces. The church temporarily housed the Christian refugee families in the shrine until a proper settlement was found. Later, new refugee camps were built in Ankawa by NGOs in coordination with the church, and the refugees who resided in the Shrine of Mar Eli were moved to those camps.

Christian refugees during the ISIS crises sheltered on the grounds of the shrine.[4]

Following the settlement of the refugees in proper accommodation, Bishop Bashar Warda restored the shrine, making some changes and upgrades to it – the reasons will be mentioned in the next section. The bishop removed the garden for future construction and brought in a statue of St. Sharbel, the Lebanese Saint, that was granted as a gift by Eli Stephan and his wife Katia Muzhir to the people of Ankawa. According to Stevan Shani, the reason for choosing the Shrine of Mar Eli was its central location in Ankawa, and its importance as a shelter for IDP (internally displaced people) families during ISIS crises.[5] Furthermore, the church of the shrine was renovated and given new decorations. The shrine was reopened on April 7, 2017.

St. Sharbel statue in the courtyard of the Shrine of Mar Eli.

[1] Jizya is kind of tax which was paid by non-Muslims to the Muslim rulers, historically.

[2] Almada Paper, 2007.

[3] “Mar Eli Church,” Ishtar TV website, accessed on September 26, 2019,27099.html..


[5]  Shani, Stivan,Eftitah nasb al qadis mas Sharbal fi Ankawa (translation from Arabic: The Inauguration of St. Eli Monument in Ankawa), 2017, accessed on April 15, 2021,  [].

Location and Building

Shrine of Mar Eli is located in the center of Ankawa on a busy street that is always full of people. However, the grounds are enclosed by a metal fence in order to separate it from the street. The fences are covered with Dodonaea viscosa plants to make a nice impression from outside. The shrine nowadays consists of the church and the St. Charbel statue.

Picture of the western side of the church and its main entrance. The translation of the text above the door reads Mar Eli Shrine.

The church in the shrine can accommodate up to 300 people. The building is made of cinder blocks and concrete covered with limestone. Its modern architecture reflects traditional elements from the earlier churches of the East. Previously, it was built as a simple hall that did not display any religious or spiritual elements. Later on, the church was upgraded with several changes. The main upgrade, in 2017, was of the ceiling, which was made to resemble the three corridors of traditional eastern churches. The ceiling features hanging lamellas (wood panels) and the walls are made of rough marble. According to Areej Haido[1], the interior was very similar to that of general halls before the upgrade, which aimed to make the church more spiritual inside.

The earlier interior of the Church of Mar Eli.
A wide view of the church ceiling after the upgrades.

The apse was covered with wood in a shape similar to the curtains used in traditional churches. Above the altar, a rounded cross took the place of the old cross. The new cross reflects the shape of the Holy Eucharist, a significant element in Christian masses, with the Tabernacle at its center.

After the upgrades, two mosaics were added on either side of the apse, one of Jesus Christ and the other of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. The aim, as stated by engineer Areej Haido, was to give a sense of Catholic spirituality to the church, something which had previously been missing. On both sides of the main door are two carved icons with a hidden light. Furthermore, the designers added wooden crosses of a modern design to the side pillars and set up spotlights, to highlight the crosses with shadows and light.

The church has 14 Stations of the Cross inside. Four additional paintings in the church are not part of the stations, instead representing the Easter trilogy.

The pictures represent the Easter trilogy.
The altar of the church after the upgrades. The north pulpit is for reading the Old Testament, the south pulpit for the New Testament. The pulpit beside the altar is where the priest hangs his liturgical vestments.
The Eucharist symbol with the Tabernacle at its center.
Icons of Christ Pantocrator or Jesus the Ruler of All, and of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.
On the left side of the nave, facing west, hang paintings of Jesus Christ Crown of Thorns, and of the Holy Family.

The walls of the nave display the Stations of the Cross where, according to Father Janan, “during the Easter fast, we carry out some rituals. On each Friday, we do one stage of the stages that Jesus Christ had been through during his crucifixion.”[1] Those Stations of the Cross were kept after the upgrade. Apart from the hall for mass and a reception office, the church has no other rooms or buildings. Father Janan added: “In the shrine, we do not have religious education rooms, daycare or a library because they exist in the diocese, not in shrines.”[2]

[1] Personal interviews on March 5, 2019 and November 30, 2019 with Father Janan, who served as shrine priest at the time. . 

[2]  Ibid.

A panorama showing the Stations of the Cross on the walls of the church.

The church is equipped with an advanced sound system, with 10 speakers (five on each side). Designed by a sound specialist, the system is designed to amplify the voices of the priest, choir and deacon through neck microphones. The church is also equipped with 10 cassette air conditioners. Hence, it has all the necessary communication facilities.

[1] Personal interview with Areej Haido, the architectural engineer responsible for the design of the shrine upgrade. 

[2] Personal interviews on March 5, 2019 and November 30, 2019 with Father Janan, who served as shrine priest at the time. . 

[3]  Ibid.

Prayer and Worship

The Shrine of Mar Eli, as explained above, has a church for masses and vespers, the latter of which are daily congregation prayers.[1] Additionally, the church holds masses each Sunday and Friday, and during the feasts. On Sundays, there are two masses, at 8 am and 6 pm, to offer a choice for believers who may be busy in the morning or evening. On Fridays, the masses are held in English.

According to Father Janan, each Sunday there are about 300 participants, especially at the evening masses. He mentioned nothing about the number of foreigners attending, due to their fluctuating attendance. Regarding the daily prayers, the priest said: “The church’s doors are open 24/7, which is the only church of this kind in Erbil.[2] For this reason, we cannot calculate the number of visitors who come to the shrine, and the average is variable.”

The priest leads the prayers and masses. Father Janan confirmed that the main role of leading the congregation is the priest’s task in Catholic churches. He added that the deacons’ role is simply to help the priests. Some of the parishioners, however, stay after the masses to meet and greet their friends and the priest. They cannot stay for long, because the shrine does not have sufficient facilities to serve gatherings after masses. For instance, there are no halls for having dinner or snacks together.

The shrine has no volunteers but rather “servants,” said Father Janan. These unpaid servants[3] are the choir members and nuns. Nuns do most of this work; they help train and teach hymns to the choir, and help the priest to decorate the altar and organize the church for the feasts or main events. Some people work for the church on salary, such as the guards, secretary, sacristan and cleaning woman.  

Regarding the homilies[4], the subject matter of these short sermons never includes politics. Usually, they are spiritual reflections from the Bible. “We do not include political issues in our homilies, as the priests are forbidden from interfering in politics,”[5] said Father Janan. During masses, there are normative readings from the Bible that help people to pursue Jesus Christ’s discipline, whereas the homilies could be about current events, such as when ISIS invaded the Nineveh Plains region and the Christian families fled their homes. At that time, the aim of the homilies was to strengthen people’s faith and give them patience by including verses from the Bible. For feasts, there are special homilies that focus on atonement and repentance.

The shrine’s main events are determined by the liturgical year, meaning Christmas and Easter. The church holds special masses for these two great holy events in Christianity, and attendance at them is high. Finally, there are no cyclical events in the shrine because these are performed in the parishes rather than in the shrine.

[1]  In Christianity, vespers are daily prayers.

[2] Interviews with Father Janan, as in footnote 7.

[3] The servants are church community members who help with cleaning and repairs free of charge.

[4] Homilies are short sermons delivered by the priests to the parishioners on various issues.

[5] Interviews with Father Janan, as in footnote 7.

Community and Group Activity

The Shrine of Mar Eli holds only a few group activities due to the fact that it is not part of a parish. The church choir participates in the masses and holy events. During the feasts, concerts of hymns of praise; the choir takes part under the direction of a nun. There are a sacristan and a woman responsible for cleaning and repairing the church, but from time to time, women and young people within the congregation join in these activities to fulfill a vow. The priest said that there are about 20 members who act as servants of the church. Their expenses are covered by the diocese.


The church does not have a fixed number of congregants. Since the shrine belongs to the Catholic Chaldean Archdiocese of Erbil, the believers who attend the masses and prayers are diverse. Due to the location of the shrine in the center of Ankawa, many people from other congregations participate in the masses occasionally.

As the priest mentioned, although the shrine does not have lists for the congregation, the number of daily participants is sharply increasing.[1] The reason behind this is that priest conducts the homilies for evening masses in Arabic. This, in turn, attracts the Christian refugees from Syria who frequently participate, in addition to locals from Ankawa.

[1] Ibid.

Public Relations

The shrine has no websites, newsletters, or any other kind of publications, apart from the fact that Aziz Nabati, an author from Ankawa, wrote about it in his book Ta’reekh Ankawa (The History of Ankawa). The shrine also has no political connections, but maintains good relations with the other parishes and is a member of the archdiocese.